26 September 1964. Ten students board a plane to fly to Suriname via Lisbon. But this isn't the full extent of the trip. Over the course of 18 months, the group visits 23 countries. In each country they research the circumstances in which farmers grow rice and other tropical and subtropical species such as sugarcane, pineapple and bananas. Forty years later, in 2007, the former students write a book about their trip: Rijstreis in Retrospectie (rice travels: a retrospect).
Alexander Heydendael was one of the lucky ones to go on the rice travels. ‘The book contains anecdotes about our travels and the life lessons learnt by the participants,’ says Heydendael. There is a piece about a visit to the Aquino family, one of the oldest and wealthiest landowning families in the Philippines. The students were received as guests of honour at the family's estate but quickly felt a sense of embarrassment when a local dance performance erupted in a fight when other guests started throwing money. ‘We were impressed by Benigno Aquino,’ says Heydendael. ‘He wrote his own history when he told us: “If you want to solve the socio-economic crisis caused by landowners in this country you have to shoot them all, starting with me.” In 1983 he was a candidate for the national presidency and was shot on the airplane stairs when he returned to Manila from the US.’
Robert Best, a rice expert at the former Agricultural College, was the brain behind the trip. ‘He is a fantastic man,’ says Heydendael. ‘He organised everything for us, as if we were his children.’ Best sent the students on this exploration to research the circumstances in which farmers produce rice all across the world. He stayed at home himself. ‘We each had our own area of expertise to research,’ explains Heydendael. As a Development Economics student, Heydendael researched the relationship between landowners and leaseholders. In each country he also contacted local newspapers, magazines and radio stations to give the unique project a little publicity.
The now retired former students still get together for a reunion every year. ‘The last reunion was on 3 December 2017, on Geertjesweg. Robert Best received us on his 90th birthday at the fireplace with a glass of champagne. Whenever I'm in Wageningen I go to visit him.’
Heydendael sent his memoirs to the 100x100 website for the centennial of WUR. Besides memoirs, money can be donated on this website towards various projects that take place during the centenary celebrations. The memoirs will be exhibited on the alumni day on 23 June 2018.